Ancient cultures celebrated the beginning of their new year at various points in the annual solar cycle. The ancient Roman year began in March until Julius Caesar, in correcting the calendar in 46 B.C., made January the first month. And some cultures, like ancient Israel, had more than one new year – a sacred year beginning in the spring, and an administrative or civil year beginning in the fall.
The Bible shows certain events in religious history were tied to these two new years. Nisan 1, the beginning of the Hebrew sacred year, was the beginning of the Exodus story (Exodus 12:1-2), and according to Jewish tradition, the tabernacle of God was dedicated on the same first day of the spring cycle New Year; whereas the Temple of Solomon was dedicated at the beginning of the fall cycle New Year (1 Kings 8:1-2). This “civil new year” is also the point from which the years were counted in Israel and, according to Jewish tradition, the day on which the creation of man took place.
So the new years were important in a number of ways in the religion of ancient Israel, as we see in the Old Testament. But whatever date cultures have chosen to begin a new year, it is often a time of celebration as it seems to be deeply human to desire and to celebrate new beginnings. Sometimes, of course, the celebration part of the picture can get a little carried away. As far as our modern (since Julius Caesar) New Year is concerned, it is interesting that the early Christians accepted it, but cautiously as they were strongly opposed to the pagan extravagance and licentiousness which often accompanied it. Not much has changed since those times and, as we all know, for some today New Year’s Eve can often be a time of revelry without restraint. Today’s Christians may still have to beware of that spirit of unrestraint, but we can always rejoice in the concept of renewal.
As Christians we rejoice in the new lives we begin upon conversion – as the apostle Paul wrote: “… if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17); and in his letter to the Ephesians Paul shows that this is an ongoing renewal: “… put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires … be made new in the attitude of your minds; and … put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). That’s a goal that certainly far exceeds any physical “New Year’s resolution,” but in that sense, every day is like the beginning of a new year for the Christian, and Christians should perhaps strive to be masters of the new beginning. It’s part of our calling – we are supposed to “raze the old to raise the new” – on an ongoing basis. So let’s remember the calling we have as this new year begins – not to well-intentioned but short-lived “resolutions,” but to real and lasting renewal.